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Rivendell Theatre revisits ‘WRENS’ in new staging

Playwright Ann McGravieserved WRENS (Women's Royal Navy Service) during World War II England.

Playwright Ann McGravieserved in the WRENS (Women's Royal Navy Service) during World War II in England.

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♦ To Oct. 13

♦ Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge

♦ Tickets, $30

♦ (773) 334-7728;

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:19PM

When Anne McGravie was 17½, she made a decision that would change her life. It was 1944 and war was raging in Europe when, one day, McGravie stopped in front of a recruitment office in her native Edinburgh and was inspired to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

“At the time, there was conscription for women too,” McGravie recalls. “So at 18 I would have been sent to work in a munitions factory, which I didn’t really want to do. Instead, I was sent to London for WRENS training and spent two years assigned to the Orkney Islands.”

McGravie’s experiences during these years inspired her ensemble play, “WRENS,” which had its world premiere in 1996 at Rivendell Theatre, where it is now being reprised.

Starring in the all-female cast are Ashley Neal, Mary Cross, Rebecca Spence, Meg Warner, Jodi Kingsley, Amanda Powell and Katrina Kuntz. Karen Kessler, who directed the earlier production, returns for a second look at McGravie’s drama about seven women and the impending loss of their newfound wartime independence.

When approached by Rivendell artistic director Tara Mallen, Kessler, who teaches at Ball State University, says she had to “give some thought” to the idea of a remount. After all, the original production won three Jeff Awards and introduced Rivendell as a promising new theater showcasing the work of female artists.

“It went remarkably well for us the first time around. But I wondered if we were tempting fate to do it again,” Kessler says. “It’s become an important part of Rivendell’s history. Eventually, I realized it would be a fun challenge. But this is not a remount; it’s definitely a redo.”

“WRENS” is set in 1945 as the war in Europe winds down. The women, who have built camaraderie while serving at their remote Orkney Island naval base, are confronted with giving up their jobs and going back to a way of life they now view as unfulfilling.

McGravie says the thought of “going away and being on my own” was the main draw of joining the WRENS: “It was a different life in every way and opened my mind and the whole world to me. I enjoyed everything about it, and when the war was over I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

During the war, women were “afforded a power and purpose” they had never experienced before, says Kessler, a founding member of Rivendell and currently in the ensemble at A Red Orchid Theatre.

And while things may be very different today, she thinks the themes in McGravie’s play “still resonate.”

In the previous staging of “WRENS,” actress Mary Cross played the youngest character in the group; she returns in this production as the oldest. She says her first reaction was “panic.” It was one of the first shows she did in Chicago that got a lot of recognition and her first experience working with a true ensemble.

“I was terrified of the thought of trying to recreate that kind of magic,” Cross explains. “And I knew it would be hard to get the original cast members’ voices out of my head. But I found that this cast brought new voices to the play. Karen and I are both surprised by how much we are learning this time around from a script we thought we knew pretty well.”

When McGravie left the WRENS, she was 19 and “dissatisfied with everything.” An uncle wrote and suggested she join his family in Hammond, Ind., and she jumped at the chance, eventually landing in Chicago, where she found work in educational publishing. Creative writing had always been a hobby, but it wasn’t until sometime in her 40s that she took a writing class at the School of the Art Institute and discovered her love of dialogue was perfect for playwriting.

“I find it just so fascinating how you can tell a story and show character development through dialogue,” McGravie says. “

Now 86 and an accomplished playwright, McGravie has a new play, “The Clown Next Door,” that will be staged later this season by The Neapolitans Theatre. Around the Block Press recently released her first novel, Dancing on Ashes, about a woman who returns to her roots in Ireland and uncovers the truth behind a family tragedy. More plays and two novels also are in the works.

“I am busy and I love it,” McGravie says with a laugh. “It’s better than just sitting around and waiting for what’s next.”

♦ Rivendell Theatre presents a special benefit performance at 6 p.m. Oct. 14 reuniting the original Jeff Award-winning 1996 cast of “WRENS” for a staged reading of the play. Tickets are $30 and include a post-performance reception with the playwright and cast.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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